Taiwan's Minima Technology Co. Ltd. has had what you might call a long incubation period. The small biodegradable plastics company opened its doors in 2000, but it has taken a while for the business to mature.
Now the 25-person firm thinks that it may be about to see some payback.
It is attracting more investors, for example. This year, Taiwanese eyeglass maker Contour Optik Inc. invested an undisclosed amount in Minima to help with its plans to roll out ``green'' sunglasses made from corn-based polylactic acid at major U.S. retailers next year.
The small company also said it is seeing much more interest in its equipment for processing biopolymers, including from places not normally associated with bioplastics such as Bulgaria and Mongolia.
The rising interest in ``green plastics'' means Minima's sales next year could triple, to about US$3 million, due to demand for its PLA compounds, equipment and market consulting services, including turnkey production line installation, said General Manager Huang Chien-Ming.
In a recent interview at Minima's Taichung headquarters, company officials were optimistic as well as quick to point out that many challenges remain. The biggest is the sky-high price of bioplastics, currently two to five times more expensive than traditional plastics, Huang said.
``It is very difficult to promote this because the price is so much higher than conventional plastics,'' Huang said.
Still, customer interest seems to be rising.
Contour Optik, based in Chiayi, Taiwan, wants to use Minima materials to ramp up production of PLA sunglasses for the U.S. market, said David Chao, Contour's chief executive officer.
Contour, which makes high-end glasses and claims to be one of the world's largest makers of reading glasses, made its first PLA sunglasses two years ago.
They sold well in the U.S., where customers were interested in environmentally friendly materials. But because of problems with the PLA's low heat-distortion temperature, many of the sunglasses did not survive shipment from Minima's injection molding plants in China, he said.
Since then, Contour and Minima have worked on the heat distortion problems and think they have solved them, Chao said.
``I think we have a very bright future in the biodegradables business,'' Chao said in a Sept. 20 telephone interview. ``We want to make sure we begin to use materials that are renewable and not petroleum-based.''
Chao said he invested in Minima because the small firm seemed further ahead in its use of technology than some larger competitors. The company also has investment from Mark Charman, the owner of Australian PLA processor Dzolv Products Pty. Ltd. in Palmyra, Australia.
Minima positions itself as a manufacturer and a research lab. It is one of 12 companies worldwide certified as a PLA compounder by resin maker NatureWorks LLC of Minnetonka, Minn., and also is a certified equipment manufacturer, according to NatureWorks Web site.
A former chemical engineering professor and government researcher, Huang shifts easily between discussing plastic molecular chains and product market share. Beyond working on compounds that improve PLA's heat resistance, Minima is developing equipment to foam PLA film and researching how to lower PLA film manufacturing costs using conventional blown film equipment, Huang said. That potentially could open up more of the food packaging market to bioplastics, he added.
Today, the firm retains a broad business model, both researching technology and doing market development, trying to seed the market by coming up with products such as biopolymer bath sponges, said Esmy Huang, marketing manager and Chien-Ming's brother.
Minima also has seen an increase in business in PLA grocery bags in Taiwan, Australia and the U.S. West Coast. Government pressure against traditional plastic bags is the key driver, said Chien-Ming Huang.
``Before 2008, this market grew very, very slowly, all because of the price,'' he said. ``This year, it's growing very quickly, especially in the Australian market, mainly because of their government.''
Huang, who is past president of Taiwan's Environmentally Biodegradable Polymer Association, seems to see his firm's role not just in profit and loss terms, but almost as a proselytizer of new technology.
``It's not only profit that we need to take care of, we want to create a different type of business,'' he said.